Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pink Floyd Revisited

Pink Floyd: The Division Bell; Syd Barrett: Crazy Diamond

Tom Graves, Rolling Stone, 16 June 1994

IS THIS still really Pink Floyd? That seems to be the question, as it has been since Roger Waters left the band in 1985 to dip deeper into the sci-fi soup. Waters has since missed no opportunity to slag his former bandmates as incompetent fakes. He would suggest that he was Pink Floyd, although judging from his overwrought, concept-burdened solo albums, that notion should be put to rest.

The debate on the current Floyd centers on the band's use of hired guns, songwriting professionals brought in to shore up a sound that otherwise might not be Pink Floyd enough. What makes this criticism superfluous is that much of the great music of rock and roll has been written, or augmented, by outside talents. For every Lennon-McCartney or Prince, there have been 10 examples like Leiber and Stoller, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Holland-Dozier-Holland or Phil Spector. It should concern no one too much that in the absence of Roger Waters, who has been Pink Floyd's chief songwriter, the band sought outside help.

What is of concern is whether the music of the post-Waters Pink Floyd stands up to the band's best work – The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall, and Meddle. Unfortunately, A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) and the live Delicate Sound of Thunder (1988) were only sporadically successful at achieving the stunning aural power of Pink Floyd's previous work. Their new album, The Division Bell, ironically enough, seems to cry out for someone with an overriding zeal and passion – in short, a nettlesome, overbearing visionary like Roger Waters.

The Division Bell is a quieter, more atmospheric and contemplative Pink Floyd, with lyrics so opaque and inert one cannot hope to plumb their meaning. Of course, no Pink Floyd album would be complete without a concept, and The Division Bell seems to be about that old standby, failure to communicate. Even through the vagueness of the lyrics, one gets the feeling the band is firing broadsides at Waters . On 'Lost for Words', for example, David Gilmour sings: "So I open my door to my enemies/And I ask could we wipe the slate clean/But they tell me to please go fuck myself/You know you just can't win." And so the war continues.

The album also gives off the uncomfortable whiff of middle-age and graying sensibilities. Gilmour, who has become Pink Floyd's de facto leader, in particular seems bored or dispirited. His guitar solos were once the band's centerpieces, as articulate, melodic and well-defined as any in rock. No longer. He now has settled into rambling, indistinct asides that are as forgettable as they used to be indelible. Only on 'What Do You Want From Me' does Gilmour sound like he cares.
Another problem with the album is its length. At more than an hour, it is too long and quickly exhausts its few fresh ideas. The band seems to be padding at every opportunity. Consequently, The Division Bell will satisfy only the most ravenous Pink Floyd fans.

Standing almost in mockery of the swipes the band members have taken at one another is the new three-disc box set Crazy Diamond, which collects the decidedly eccentric post-Floyd musings of original member, Syd Barrett. Barrett, as all Floyd devotees know, was booted from the band in 1968 during the making of A Saucerful of Secrets as he deteriorated mentally from excessive intake of LSD. In 1969 and 1970, he was encouraged by Gilmour and Waters, among others, to return to the studio. The erratic results were released over a period of time as The Madcap Laughs, Barrett and Opel.
Barrett has become the focus of a ghoulish cult that apparently relishes the disintegration palpable on the tracks included on Crazy Diamond. The fact is, Barrett was of dubious talent from the get-go, although his singles with Pink Floyd, 'Arnold Layne' and 'See Emily Play', broke the band onto the British charts. Out of Barrett's entire 70-or-so song oeuvre, only a handful of tracks – all done with Pink Floyd – are standouts.

Crazy Diamond (the title was taken from Pink Floyd's outstanding tribute to Barret, 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond') painfully document's Barrett's disappearance into the lysergic mist. At best, the songs collected hold a morbid fascination; at worst, they are little more than whimsical ditherings. Barrett collectors are completists by nature, and this set adds more than a dozen bonus tracks, some of which are hilariously off-kilter. The booklet offers no insight or update on Barrett's condition.

The album Barrett is by far the most focused and spirited of the three discs, but only a fellow acid jockey or hale adventurer could possibly sit through all 58 tracks. Perhaps expectations for the set would be more realistic if it were retitled, something along the line of, say, Crazy Zirconium.

© Tom Graves, 1994


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